Just this week I read a report of three young men in the Middle East (Iraq) who were thrown into a fire by extremists when they refused to denounce their faith in God and convert their religion. These are the kinds of headlines that are sadly becoming commonplace today. This particular report, however, actually took place nearly 2,500 years ago. It’s the event recorded in Daniel chapter three.
I believe King Nebuchadnezzar became obsessed with his dream described in chapter two. Being the narcissist that he was, he fell in love with the idea that he represented the gold head of the statue, “king of kings” according to Daniel, unopposed ruler. He then builds a 90-foot statue, covered in gold, and insists on celebrating it with all. Not just celebrating it, but worshiping it. So everyone turns out to bow down to this monstrosity.
Everyone, that is, except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Maybe there were others who declined, but it was difficult for these three to go unnoticed. They held prominent positions in the government and were probably envied by more than a few. Those looking to make entrance into the good graces of the king would see their refusal as a perfect opportunity, and that’s how the story goes.
King Nebuchadnezzar flies into a rage when he learns of their defiance and orders the fiery furnace to be heated seven times hotter. His face even contorts with rage. These young men seem so strong and confident that I am amazed at their response to this intimidating man.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18 NLT)
They’re immediately bound and thrown in the fire and indeed, God saved them from harm. He’s even present with them in the furnace because everyone could see four figures walking around in the furnace. When the three men exit the fire without a scar or singe on them (they don’t even smell like smoke), there’s no explanation for it, except that it’s a miracle of God, and the king knows it.
Without a doubt this was one of my favorite Bible stories as a kid, and the message I took home: remain strong in faith and God will protect you. It’s a great message for a kid in the U.S. who tries avoid the dangers of peer pressure and who still remains largely protected in this land of liberty. But there are people today who remain firm, refuse to denounce their faith in Christ and… they die for it. Unprotected. Martyred. What does this say about God and about our faith?
First of all, it should be noted that these young men didn’t suddenly muster up the right amount of faith to nobly walk the path we now admire. It’s clear from the first two chapters that their faith had been building and growing and God prepared them for this moment. While God demonstrated his authority and power through these men, they didn’t turn to his miracles for the foundation of their faith. They relied on the unseen God himself.
But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up. (Daniel 3:18 NLT emphasis mine)
But even if he doesn’t…The Bible is full of dazzling displays of God’s saving power, but it is not devoid of the tales where this divine intervention seems startlingly absent. Not everything has a fairy tale ending. Today, I want to dig deeper into the substance of faith, how God uses miracles and signs to reveal himself, and our expectations from God as a result
Miracles are inherently subjective, viewed and interpreted through the lens of the observer. You can look at my back yard during summer and see an unkempt space of wild grass and weeds. I on the other hand see wildflowers and a natural New Mexico landscape. You might experience God in a way that you see a miracle, while I might be skeptical and wary.
In his book entitled Miracles, Eric Metaxes writes:
If God is behind a miracle, and we can agree that that is ultimately what makes a miracle a miracle, then a large part of his performing the miracle has to do with communicating with the people who are observing or experiencing the miracle. So we can ask, if a miracle happens in the woods and there’s no one around to see it, is it a miracle? (Metaxes, Miracles, p.15)
The whole point of a miracle is not the miracle itself, but to whom the miracle is pointing, and to whom God is communicating through it. Why did God save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in such a flamboyant way? It wasn’t for the oooh’s and aaaah’s that would no doubt follow. It was so that all who observed (and all who now read the story 2,500 years later) would desire to know this God.
If a miracle happens in the woods and there’s no one around to see it, it’s actually not a miracle. (Metaxes, Miracles, p.15)
As we look through the records of the Bible, I see some predominant, although not exclusive, patterns to when and how miracles are granted. One of which is this, faith in God precedes the miracle, not the other way around typically. For example:
During the ministry of Jesus, there was a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years without any relief or cure from doctors.
For she thought to herself, “If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.” (Mark 5:28 NLT)
And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace. Your suffering is over.” (Mark 5:34 NLT)
Or the gentile woman who requested that Jesus cast out the demon tormenting her daughter. Jesus told her that he was there for the Jews, the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.”
“Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed. (Matthew 15:21-28 NLT)
I could go on and on with examples like these. They were miraculously healed because their faith was enduring. Faith came first. Conversely we also see examples of Jesus withholding miracles, where otherwise he may have granted them, when he identified that the people had no faith. For example:
He returned to Nazareth, his hometown, during his ministry to teach. The people knew he was a carpenter’s son and that he had no formal training. Mark records that his people “refused to believe in him,” and that he was “amazed at their unbelief.” (Mark 6:3,6)
And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:58 NLT)
The Pharisees are another example of miracles being withheld. They were constantly trying to trap him into saying or doing something that they could use to arrest him. There was no faith in them.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” So he got back into the boat and left them…” (Mark 8:11-13 NLT)
Why do you think the miracles needed to follow their faith? Why doesn’t it seem instead that miracles inspire faith?
If you recall in the previous lesson I centered in on the truth that God is the keeper of all secrets and thereby the revealer of all secrets. I went on to say that while each of us remains in captivity to pride and selfishness, we’re usually blind to those things that reside in our heart. We might see it in others, but we can’t see it in ourselves. It takes God’s revelation of those secrets deep within our heart to release us from that bondage.
Scripture will often refer to our heart as hardened while we are blind. Is it the blindness that makes the heart hard, or the hardened heart that renders us blind? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? While studying this week, I noticed several different kinds of hardened hearts that I’ll share with you today.
The Forgetful Hard Heart
Starting with Nebuchadnezzar, I see him having a forgetful hard heart. He is presented with God’s awesome power in chapter two after Daniel accomplished the task that he so impossibly set before him. When Daniel shared the dream and the interpretation, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t hesitate to acknowledge God’s supremacy.
The king said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is the greatest of gods, the Lord over kings, a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this secret.” (Daniel 2:47 NLT)
Yet in chapter three we find him building an idol and threatening to kill anyone who didn’t worship it, including those men aligned with Daniel and the Most High God he just praised. How could he forget? As we move into chapter four next week, we will see this pattern continue. Does he have a learning disability? Or hard heart?
The Opportunist Hard Heart
The folks who fall into this category are motivated, not by faith, but by what they hope to gain from God. So many of the people who marveled at the miracles performed by Jesus, followed him because they wanted to be entertained. But when the rubber hit the road, they too, hit the road.
Shortly after the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 with only five loaves of bread and two fish, some of these same people followed Jesus across the lake and peppered him with questions. They wanted more miracles.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs. But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking eternal life that the Son of Man can give you…” (John 6:26-27 NLT)
So focused on the things this world has to offer, and searching for opportunities to gain more, Jesus is telling them that they’re entirely missing the point.
The Prideful Hard Heart
Now this is a category that could probably technically include the previous two, due to its broad coverage. So much of our sin is rooted in pride. However, for my purposes today, I’m limiting the definition of pride mainly to those who insist they are always right, whose behavioral tendencies are argumentative, and to those who fear that others might threaten their status.
The Pharisees, during Jesus’ ministry, had prideful hard hearts. They found Jesus incredibly threatening and were determined to undermine him at every turn. They vilified his miracles by accusing him of breaking the law when he healed on the Sabbath. They attempted to debunk the legitimacy of his miracles by accusing his power as Satan’s. And their pride kept them from seeing God in these miracles.
The Ignorant Hard Heart
Lest we walk away today thinking that none of this applies to us because we, after all, love and follow God, bless our hearts, there is a hardened heart that affects even those of us who earnestly seek our Lord. As we pursue our Lord, our faith grows, which implies there’s space in our lives where our faith lacks. It’s within this space that a hardened heart holds potential. And it’s our attitude toward that potential, our humble acceptance of our imperfections, which will ultimately determine how long it remains hardened.
Allow me to explain with an example. After this same feeding of the 5,000, a miracle if there ever was one, the disciples got into a boat and sailed out onto the lake. While sailing, a terrible storm came upon them and they were in serious trouble. That’s when Jesus arrived; walking on the water and it scared them as much, if not more than the storm.
The he climbed into the boat, and the wind stopped. They were totally amazed, for they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in. (Mark 6:51-52 NLT)
A group of men who loved the Lord, earnestly followed him, but simply didn’t understand all that was in front of them. We know these men eventually came to an understanding, because they never stopped asking. They never stopped seeking. We have that same hope.
I talked about the miracle, I talked about the hard heart that blinds us to the miracle, now let’s talk about the faith that precedes the miracle. Ever heard the phrase, seeing is believing? In reality, it should say, believing is seeing. Stay with me a minute. Hebrews defines faith for us.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 KJV)
This is why so many of the miracles that Jesus performed were granted after the profession of faith. Faith is not because of the miracle, but the miracle rather is the confirmation of the faith and God’s faithfulness. Faith is inherently based on things unseen, and ironically faith is also the gateway to those unseen secrets revealed. Believing is seeing.
Faith is not exactly what delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. God delivered them. Faith is what led them to God over and over, day after day, when they couldn’t always “see” what God was doing, before they ever arrived at the furnace. Even if he doesn’t, they said. It didn’t affect their faith or their resolve.
Those people who wanted more miracles after the feeding of the 5,000, they were blinded to the miracle standing right in front of them.
They answered, “Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do? After all, our ancestors ate manna while they journeyed through the wilderness! The Scriptures say, ‘Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.”
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life…” (John 6:30-35a NLT)
Here’s the thing. You might be praying for a miracle in your life right now. You might be looking for a sign. How do you know that it’s not right in front of you? How can you gauge your faith in your circumstance? Try to answer this. Fill in the blanks with the burden that’s on your heart now:
Even if he doesn’t ______________, I will _______________.
There could be a miracle in front of you right now, but a hardened heart stands in the way. A heart that only an unseen faith can soften. Don’t wait until you see it to believe him.